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Travelers profit tops on lower catastrophe losses, shares rise 4 pct

(Adds analyst comment, details on auto insurance, updates shares)

By Siddharth Cavale

April 18 (Reuters) - Insurer Travelers Companies Inc's quarterly profit beat analysts' estimates on Thursday, as improved underwriting and lower catastrophe losses offset a decline in net investment income, sending its shares to a more than one-year high.

Shares of the Dow-component rose as much as 4.2 percent to $141.52, levels last seen in March 2018. The stock was also the second-biggest boost to the Dow Jones Industrial Index.

Travelers, considered a bellwether for the insurance industry, sells insurance to U.S. businesses and auto and property insurance to individual customers.

The company said net written premiums rose 3 percent to $7.06 billion in the first quarter, with growth across all business lines.

Investors were particularly focused on its commercial auto insurance business, which has been posting losses for several years as more plaintiffs lawyers jockey to represent accident victims.

However, Travelers raised premium rates for auto insurance in the first quarter, helping to contribute a 6 percent rise in gross written premiums in its insurance business. This also did not lead to a drop in renewal rates and retentions, business insurance head Gregory Toczydlowski said on a call with analysts.

"We view this as a decent quarter with favorable pricing commentary," Janney Montgomery Scott analyst Larry Greenberg said.

The company on Thursday reported that catastrophe losses, net of reinsurance, fell by $161 million to $193 million after wildfires and hurricanes dented its earnings over the past two years.

The company also said it would raise its dividend by 6.5 percent to an annual rate of $3.28 per share.

The company reported a combined ratio of 93.7 percent, compared with 95.5 percent a year earlier. A ratio below 100 percent means the insurer earns more in premiums than it pays out in claims.

A weak spot in the quarter, however, was net investment income , which fell 3.5 percent to $582 million due to lower private equity returns after a slowdown in market activity in the first quarter.

Insurers typically invest money they get from premiums in bonds and equities to earn profits, and a downturn in markets spells bad news for them.

The company's net income rose 19 percent to $796 million, or $2.99 per share, in the quarter ended March 31. Core income was $2.83 per share, which beat analysts' estimates of $2.74 per share, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.

Total revenue rose 5 percent to $7.67 billion. (Reporting By Aparajita Saxena in Bengaluru; Editing by Maju Samuel)